You know that sugar causes cavities as surely as you know that Christopher Columbus sailed to America.
If you’re saying to yourself, “I thought that Columbus never actually set foot in North America, that it was a half-truth they taught in school,” you’re definitely onto something. Sugar causing cavities is a half truth of the same order as Columbus landing in America. There’s information right next to factual there, but it’s not quite right, not quite the full story.
Just like Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands, not the North American Continent, sugar itself does not cause cavities. However, sugar can exacerbate other unhealthy conditions in your mouth that cause cavities. With that in mind, here are 5 tips to help you eat sugar without increasing your risk of cavities.
Tip #1 When Matters—Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at Meal Times
Some of us have a well-developed sweet tooth but that doesn’t have to spell the end of healthy teeth. When you indulge your sweet tooth is more important than what you choose when satisfying your sugar cravings.
When you eat, the pH level in your mouth drops, becoming more acidic. Acid, as you might imagine, is not good for your tooth enamel. The bacteria associated with cavity formation love and thrive in acidic conditions. The acid also can dissolve minerals out the tooth enamel, leaving weak spots for the bacteria to attack.
Your saliva is your body’s natural defense against acid attacks, and it will work to raise oral pH back up to safe levels, but that work takes time. If you eat only at meal times, your saliva has a chance to balance the pH levels in your mouth. If you eat small, frequent meals or snack all day long, your saliva cannot reach a natural balance on its own. Acid loving bacteria flourish, healthy bacteria die off, and minerals dissolve out of the enamel without the opportunity to redeposit in the enamel. Constant eating threatens enamel health.
So, by all means, enjoy a dessert immediately after you finish your dinner. Have a soda and a candy bar with your lunch if your diet allows. Eat a donut for breakfast. Then, stop eating between meals. It’s not the sugar itself that has caused so much misery. It’s the ability of the sugar to feed the cavity-causing bacteria that thrive when continual snacking overwhelms your body’s natural defense mechanisms.
Tip #2 Hydrate Wisely—Remember to Consider Your Beverages
It’s not just the sweets and savory snacks between meals that upset the pH balance of your mouth. All the beverages you sip throughout the day also pressure the pH balance of your mouth. Fruit juice, coffee, tea, soda (even diet sodas), and sports drinks all contribute to the formation of cavities as they bathe your teeth in a troublesome acid solution.
Much like you should restrict sugary foods to mealtimes, you should also resist the urge to sip sugary beverages between meals. Keep your sweetened, flavored drinks as food companions. Plain water is healthier for your teeth, provides healthy hydration, and may even help you to cut calories and trim your waistline.
Tip #3 Respect the Bedtime—Sleep and Sweets Don’t Mix
If you’re already committed to following tip #1, this may seem redundant. It’s worth considering separately, however, that late night eating before bed poses its own threat to tooth enamel. Because saliva plays such an important role in protecting your teeth from harm, eating at a time when your mouth is usually dry elevates the risk of damage. When we sleep, we tend to have dryer conditions in our mouth than while awake. Snorers and others who breathe through their mouths while sleeping are particularly likely to suffer from dry mouth at night. If you eat right before bed, even if it’s a regular meal, you increase the risk that your saliva won’t adequately rebalance your oral environment and cavity causing bacteria will cause you problems. Make sure you schedule your food early enough to give your oral environment time to settle, certainly no less than 30 minutes.
Tip #4 Get Sweet Smart—Not All Sweets are Equal
If your sweet tooth craves regular doses of sweets throughout the day or if you are a gum chewer, you may be able to mitigate the damage by making wise choices about the sweetener you consume. While sugar does nothing to improve oral health, xylitol, a natural non-nutritive sweetener, has been shown to aid in the fight against cavities. It does so partially because unhealthy bacteria eat the xylitol but cannot use it for energy. Thus, the bacteria eat themselves into starvation. Xylitol gum can be an ally in your fight against tooth decay.
Tip # 5 Balance it Out—Establish Healthy Post-Sugar Habits
Most of all, you need to establish a healthy post-sugar and post-eating routine if you want to maintain a cavity free smile. Make sure your teeth are clean after eating, but don’t scrub at tooth enamel that’s currently weakened by acid attacks. Wait to brush until after the minerals have had a chance to redeposit on your enamel—at least 30 minutes. Swish with plain water after eating to help remove food particles and to counteract plaque acids without damaging your enamel. A pH correcting oral rinse or oral spray may help even more if you need additional protection from tooth decay.